The LP Era: Voice-Practice/voice Document

By Parry, Sarah | English Studies in Canada, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The LP Era: Voice-Practice/voice Document


Parry, Sarah, English Studies in Canada


POETRY IN PERFORMANCE ENTAILS THE SOUNDING OF A TEXT in a live performance context. Sound events become voice documents through the application of sound engineering values that supplement an authorial voice-practice. This engineering affects the pitch or tempo of a performance and changes the relationship between sonic figure and sonic ground. This essay details the technical, aesthetic, and ideological values that Caedmon Records brought to bear upon sound recording and reproduction and compares these with those of other publishers, such as Columbia and Folkways, of recorded poetry during the same period. It also explains how the relatively slow tempo of postwar public speech, spoken word, and sound recording regimes imprinted the voice documents of the monaural era. As Charles Bernstein has noted, "[A] large archive of audio and video documents, dating back to an early recording of Tennyson's almost inaudible voice, awaits serious study and interpretation" (5). Bernstein argues for a formalist analysis or "close listening" to poetry in performance. The listening I propose, which is materialist rather than formalist, allows for analysis of the heterogeneity of poets' voice-practices as preserved in the voice documents of the recorded poetry archive I propose an aural criticism that attends to the material production of voice documents in a manner that is analogous to the focus of critics such as Jerome McGann and Lawrence Rainey on the material production of textual documents.

Many of the voice documents of the recorded poetry archive were produced during the monaural LP era, a period in media history that extended from 1948 to 1958. That era was part of a postwar "audio revolution" that marked a technical divide between partial and full sound spectrum recording and reproduction. It was enabled by three innovations: the long-playing vinyl record (LP) as the first medium to allow full sound spectrum reproduction of speech and sound events; magnetic audiotape as a medium of full sound spectrum recording and sound engineering; and high-fidelity sound reproduction systems. Several historical factors contributed to the social production of poetry as the spoken word content of the LP medium, but the editorial choices of Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, the two Columbia graduate students who founded Caedmon Records, were pre-eminent. Founded in 1952 with a recording of Dylan Thomas, the label soon began publishing recordings of the first generation of modern American poets and prose stylists, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. The aesthetic and technical choices of the company's first sound engineer, Peter Bartok, shaped the formal characteristics of these voice documents and contributed to the distinctive Caedmon sound.

Bartok was an exemplar of a sound reproduction value I call sonic realism. He was also an articulate spokesperson for the technical and aesthetic values that lay behind "lifelike" high-fidelity sound reproduction. In a 1954 article published in The Nation, Bartok defined the aesthetic and technical high fidelity standard in terms of its effect on the listener: "If the effect on the listener of a loudspeaker-produced sound is the same as it would be from a 'live performed' sound in a suitable auditorium with proper acoustics, then let us call the reproduction good" (485). Conversely, he also noted, "Any deviation in the sound characteristics due to acoustical conditions, in the time-relationship of the various sound components to each other, in their intensity relationship, in the components that are present, makes for bad reproduction" (485). The sound recording value I call "sonic romanticism" involves the manipulation of an electrical sound signal to produce certain forms of affect through, for example, the addition of reverb or the changing of the pitch of a speech or sound event. The sound recording value I call "sonic idealism" depends on sound editing, the manipulation of the figure/ground relationship, and a high signal-to-noise ratio.

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